In Search of Bonaparte’s Paris


Following the recent bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo, it seemed only fitting to see a little bit of the man who started it all. Margaret May takes a tour of Paris, by Napoleon…

Notre-Dame looms large, and majestically, as my boat approaches its landing quay on the Ile de la Cite – one of the oldest parts of Paris, dating back to the Romans, when the city was known as Lutetia.

I’ve come here to see what traces remain here, and around Paris, of Napoleon. Having read so many books about this enigmatic and charismatic champion of France (to some), I feel the need to see for myself how his undeniable place in history is manifested in buildings, monuments and statuary.

I’m beginning in Notre-Dame because this was the site of his coronation as Emperor in 1804. Notre-Dame (Our Lady) is a soaring and magnificent testimony to various architectural styles ranging from its earliest incarnation in 1163 to the 19th century when its Gothic features were added, in restoration, by Viollet-le-Duc. It is all too easy, as one walks around, to imagine the historic scenes of St. Louis in 1239 wearing the Crown of Thorns, the elaborate coronation of Napoleon and his wife Josephine, and of course, much later, in 1944 the joyful scenes that celebrated the liberation of Paris from Germany.

Coronation of Napoleon detail

The coronation itself  was conducted by Pope Pius VII in December 1804 – the weather being so cold that all were required to wear heavy mantles to keep warm during the rather protracted ceremony. I see the Grand Altar and can envisage the four orchestras that accompanied the slow procession of Napoleon and Josephine to the thrones, the bejewelled fine clothing, rich tapestries hanging from the walls, and a searing winter sun pouring in through the magnificent rose windows onto the transept.

It’s historically haunting to realise that this was 1000 years after the coronation of Charlemagne. Slightly off my Napoleonic track I climb 422 steps to the top of the cathedral and come face to face with the ugly, but strangely compelling, gargoyles that adorn the rooftops and were added in the belief that they would ward off evil spirits. This is strongly evocative of Victor Hugo – it calls to my mind thoughts of Quasimodo, Les Miserables, the Communards. The views from here stretch across the rooftops of Paris in every direction – it’s stunning, and humbling, to realise the sense of history that this place engenders.

I move on towards the Rue de Rivoli, a beautifully-designed porticoed and arcaded street which runs parallel to the Seine. This was a vision of Napoleon’s in his quest to make Paris one of the most enchanting of capital cities. It is named after his victory at Rivoli in Austria in 1797. I stop for a Kir Royale and, studying my books, learn that Napoleon was also responsible for the numbering of streets, the installation of gas lighting and improving street drainage by the introduction of pavements and gutters. Following his victory at Austerlitz a new bridge across the Seine took this name and the Vendome Column, near the Tuileries, re-built after the French revolution, rises some 44 metres into the skies. Its stone core is adorned by a bronze spiral made from the 1200 cannons captured at the Battle of Austerlitz, and is topped by a statue of Napoleon depicted as Caesar – one of his ideological models.

Paris Arc de Triomphe

Carrying on up the broad, tree-lined avenue that makes up the Champs-Elysee I’m approaching one of the main focal points that, somehow, epitomises Paris. Napoleon commissioned this dominating arch in 1806 to honour the French armed services. Measuring 50 metres high by 45 metres wide it is adorned with high reliefs, including the famed Marseillaise. At the viewing point on top of the arch one has a 360 degree view of the 12 avenues which converge here and sends traffic into a frenzied drive around it. Not a motoring experience for the faint-hearted!

The following day I head some 14 kilometres west of Paris to Rueil. This is the site of the beautiful country house and surrounding woodlands of Malmaison – the rural retreat of Napoleon and Josephine during their rather tempestuous marriage. The derogatory nomenclature (Bad House) has no known origin. The house consists of a central block flanked by two high, slate-roofed pavilions giving the whole building the feel of a grand chateau. Napoleon made many modernising changes here including converting the existing verandah into the shape of a military tent. This exists today and it is easy to imagine the Emperor and his statesmen sitting here drawing up plans and policies. Regal striped awnings replace doors and, around the walls, paintings of his military victories.

The house today contains a fine collection of Napoleonic memorabilia – clothes and costumes, busts of the family members, Josephine’s harp, the Emperor’s mechanical desk, many portraits and paintings, books, furniture, snuff boxes and jewellery, sabres, swords and other state weapons owned by Napoleon. Wandering into the grounds I discover statues, portraits of some of the saddle-horses, and Napoleon’s landau which was previously stolen by the Prussians at Waterloo.  It seems sad to think of Josephine ending her days here alone. The marriage had disintegrated somewhat, given the lack of an heir, Napoleon’s business in Paris and his eye for other ladies. Often he would arrive back at Malmaison late at night having ridden his horse from the city across some rough terrain. This once lovely house, now a museum, has given me a true sense of the nature of life here in the early 1800s as lived by these fascinating figures from history.

Paris Les Invalides

My last visit is to Les Invalides – the final resting place of Napoleon. Although he died in 1821, in exile on the island of St. Helena, his remains were not returned to Paris until 1840. Les Invalides is an outstanding monumental building originally designed as a place to provide shelter and care to the war-wounded. Today it is home to various military services and an Army Museum. The vast Courtyard, enclosed on all four sides, conjures up images of French army parades and displays.

The Dome Church on the southern side is where Napoleon lies in an enormous sarcophagus of shining porphyry. The whole thing measures 43 feet by 21 and is 48 feet high. I discover that this stunning piece contains no less than another six coffins inside it, varying from materials of lead, oak, mahogany, and tin. The very smallest one contains Napoleon. Apparently opinion is divided as to whether this was to protect the Emperor from grave robbers or to ensure that he never got out.

It is fitting that he got his final wish – to be buried near the banks of the Seine in his beloved France. He would have preferred the cathedral at St. Denis, where most of the Kings of France are interred – but, to me, this is far more special and atmospheric, and I think he would have thought so too, ultimately.

Private tours of Napoleon’s Paris, among others, are available through Paris Luxury Tours. For more information, visit